Nikki rolled over at 6 o’clock and pushed her sweat-matted hair out of her eyes. She had one of those disorienting moments, unsure whether it was dawn or dusk. She glanced blearily at the window for a clue, but the soft yellow glow coming through the shades was no help. Her head pounded and her mouth tasted like old cigarettes and too much Southern Comfort. She winced as memories from the night before began filtering back. She vaguely remembered sitting on Rob’s lap at the party, and the look on Tom’s face. She fisted her hands in her hair until it hurt. God, things were worse than she thought. It must have been the Southern Comfort, she never could control what happened when she drank the hard stuff. She thought of the huge engagement party her in-laws were hosting the next day, and groaned. “Good timing, Nikki,” she told herself softly. “Way to screw up again.” She stared glumly at the stain on the ceiling, the one that looked vaguely like Jerry Garcia, and replayed the past year in her head.
She and Tom had met at a party. The townhouse had been crowded and smoky; people had spilled out onto the balcony overlooking the ocean, and the music was cranked. Nikki was wearing her usual: torn jeans, black clunky boots, and a grey plaid flannel shirt over her favorite Nirvana t-shirt. Kurt Cobain‘s grim face surveyed the room, as if he smelled teen spirit. She’d been hanging out in the living room, listening to Pearl Jam. Eddie Vetter was singing about a woman who couldn’t find a better man; the song always made her think of her mom. She looked up as a fresh wave of people spilled into the room, and there he was. Tall and lean, with green eyes that locked on hers as a slow grin came across his face. She knew then that they’d be leaving together, but he played hard to get for a while. He joined the group gathered around the battered Playstation playing the new Twisted Metal game. She smiled to herself; she always got what she wanted, one way or another. She grabbed two ice cold Zimas and wandered over to join him. She bumped her hip against his, gently, and handed him a drink. He smiled down at her, and she preened, flipping her long blond hair back over her shoulder. Just then, Mary, who was stoned as usual, switched the stereo to a local FM station and De Los Rios boomed out of the speakers. “Macarena everybody!” Mary screamed with delight. Nikki looked at Cute Guy and raised her eyebrows in disbelief. He was a smart one, just grabbed her by the arm and made for the door. They’d been together ever since.
Her drinking hadn’t been bad when they met, just the weekend drunks and occasional blackouts. Tom thought they were cute at first and made fun of her. “Had to carry you to the car last night,” he said. “You’re such a lightweight.” Nikki smiled feebly and said nothing. What Tom didn’t know—her secret drinking before the parties, her perpetual pint bottle of Smirnoff in her purse—wouldn’t hurt him. But then her drinking escalated after she lost her job at the accounting firm. One too many Monday mornings that she’d called in sick, and her perfume just wasn’t covering up the cheap smell of vodka. With so much free time on her hands, and a wedding to plan by then, Nikki started her drinking at noon. She’d meet with the wedding planner and various caterers over a liquid lunch, then stumble in the door at 5 o’clock to shower and sober up before Tom came home. She told herself the drinking was to calm her nerves; pre-wedding jitters, she called them. But in her heart she started to worry. She thought about checking herself into one of those rehabs you heard about at parties. “So-and-so went to Betty Ford last month. She’s looking really great,” Barbara had mentioned recently. Nikki secretly thought rehab was for losers—people who couldn’t handle their drinks—but maybe, just maybe, she should do something before the wedding, so she’d have a fresh start on her new life with Tom. But she couldn’t get sober before the wedding, everybody drinks at weddings, there would be champagne toasts, and then the honeymoon! She was really looking forward to drinking Long Island Iced Teas and getting baked on the beach. Maybe she’d made too big a deal about this drinking thing, after all, she was still young, “sowing her wild oats” as her Grampa Robert used to say. And there was always later, after the honeymoon, she could get healthy then, maybe she’d even join a gym.
Nikki’d had it pretty good as a kid. She’d been given everything she’d asked for, and most things she hadn’t. There was a lot of drinking in her home, but her parents always put up the perfect front – no drinking until Happy Hour, no drunken fights in front of the neighbors. Perfectly civilized. Her mother couldn’t understand why Nikki drank the way she did. “We didn’t raise you this way. We had such big plans for you,” her mother said despairingly. “Why can’t you just have a glass of wine, or not drink at all?” And then, more recently, it was “Please don’t drink when you come over, you know it upsets your father.” Oh yeah, Nikki thought. Don’t want to make the old man mad. He’d had a heavy hand with the belt when she was a kid, and she’d never forgiven him. They had an understanding; they cordially disliked each other. After all this, the strained relationships, the old resentments, Nikki couldn’t figure out why her parents’ opinion of her still mattered so much. She tried to please them, but it would usually blow up in her face. The big wedding was her mom’s idea. She’d invited more people than Nikki had. All her snobby friends. Nikki was dreading it. “Her” big day – what a joke.
Somehow Nikki got through the next few weeks without losing Tom or her mind. The morning of their wedding dawned grey and cloudy to match her mood. She arrived at the restaurant early and went upstairs to get ready. Her hands were shaking, and her damn friends wouldn’t bring her a glass of wine to calm her nerves. Her interfering mother must have warned them off. What was she going to do, she felt like she was going to throw up. The whole ceremony was a blur — blurred faces, blurred voices, the minister looming over her like an avenging angel. He was looking at her strangely, and she’d realized she’d missed her cue. “I do! I do….” she muttered frantically, hoping that was what he was looking for. He turned to Tom, and she relaxed. That was close. How long until this was over, she could certainly have a glass of champagne to toast her own wedding, couldn’t she? Her interfering old bag of a mother couldn’t say anything to that, could she? Nikki’s stomach roiled greasily with anticipation. She couldn’t wait for that drink. Finally the ceremony was over. The bartender caught her eye right away, and came over, beaming. He presented some concoction, she was probably supposed to sip it, but she downed it immediately and it hit her stomach like a bomb. Salvation. Her fingers and toes started tingling and she felt like she just might live. She smiled gratefully at the bartender, and he trotted away to make another. Thank God for sensible men, she thought grimly. Maybe she’d get through this day without puking on her wedding dress and making a fool of herself. It was so hot in here.
Everything seemed to run together after that. Dancing the limbo, getting her hand-made dress all dirty. Flirting with her old boss as his wife walked up behind her. Pulling away from her mother who wanted to show her off to all her “oldest and dearest friends.” Hiding out in the bathroom, smoking the joint that one of her bridesmaids had smuggled in, giggling while the walls billowed in and out. She glanced out the window at the ships passing by. She felt like she was on a ship, with the planks of the wooden floor moving beneath her bare feet. She’d lost her shoes hours ago. Damn, those drinks were strong, maybe she should wave off the bartender the next time he came looking for her. She’d promised him a big tip if he kept them coming, but she still had to get through the rest of the night.
The next morning she woke up sick. Sicker than she’d ever been in her life. The last few hours of the night before were a complete blank. She couldn’t even remember the end of her own wedding night! She glanced down at her sleeping husband. At least they were married. He couldn’t leave her now. She looked around at the opulent hotel room her parents had reserved for her as a wedding gift. The room was trashed and the mini-bar was empty. She was so sick, she needed a drink, had to do something before her head blew part. Her temples pounded and she felt thick, greasy sweat sliding down her neck.
Nikki snuck out of the room and ventured down to the hotel bar, hoping it was open, and hoping she wouldn’t run into anyone she knew at this time of the morning. A bartender was on duty, which was a good omen. She ordered a shot and a beer, downed them quickly, and ordered another. As she waited for her drinks, she swiveled the bar stool towards the elevators just as the doors opened. To her horror, she watched her mom’s best friend, Genevieve Mayfield, walking towards her. Nikki had never felt like such a piece of shit in her life. She glanced around frantically, looking for a place to hide, but it was too late. Here it was, not even 10 o’clock on the morning after her wedding, and Mrs. Mayfield was smiling at her gently as Nikki’s eyes filled with tears. “Please don’t tell my mom you saw me here, she’d be so mad at me,” she sobbed. Mrs. Mayfield put her arm around Nikki’s shoulders and hugged her tenderly. “Don’t worry, honey, let’s just get you cleaned up.”
She took Nikki back to her own room, where she held Nikki’s hair back from her face while Nikki threw up for what felt like hours. Mrs. Mayfield even wiped a cool, damp washcloth on her face like Nikki’s mother used to do when she’d had the flu. Then, over a pot of very strong coffee from room service, Mrs. Mayfield sighed and took Nikki‘s hands in hers. “There is hope for you, if you’re ready,” she said kindly. “My son has been sober for six years, and he was one of those drunks you’d have to hide your purse from. Maybe you should talk to him.” Nikki nodded dumbly. Anything was better than this. Anything at all.
The following summer, Mrs. Mayfield was having an early morning coffee on her veranda overlooking the bike path. She glanced up as a young woman walked by. Her clean, shining hair flew behind her like a flag, she had a bounce in her step, and she smiled confidently at people as she passed them. Mrs. Mayfield thought she looked vaguely familiar, but couldn’t place her. She shrugged to herself, and looked back down at her novel.
Nikki smiled quietly to herself as she joined the small circle of people watching the sunrise and chatting amongst themselves. Maybe afterwards she’d surprise Mrs. Mayfield with a visit. It was past time to say thanks.